The stark contrast between old and new, juxtaposition of historic and modern and glaring disparity between shabby homes and gentrified apartments has come to define the Ajameh neighborhood of Jaffa.
The Sabahs, an Arab family of five living in a one-room home with unfinished cement walls, barbed-wire fencing and a corrugated tin roof, have been in Jaffa for generations. Their newest neighbors live in several elegant multi-story apartment buildings, separated by construction sites for what promise to be equally stunning luxury homes.
Jaffa's history, beachfront setting and proximity to Tel Aviv make it prime real estate. And the views of the Mediterranean from Ajameh are particularly appealing. As crowding in Tel Aviv increases and the demand for housing grows, gentrification is to be expected. But what should happen to hundreds of families like the Sabahs?
The latest episode of the perennial struggle over land and housing in Jaffa erupted in recent months when the government housing company Amidar and the Israel Lands Authority (ILA) issued 497 eviction and/or demolition notices to Jaffa families, including the Sabahs. As with previous waves of eviction and demolition orders, the population most greatly affected is that of poor Arab families in Ajameh and Jabaliya, two neighborhoods hugging Jaffa's shoreline.
Many of these families - as well as other Jaffa residents whose homes are not directly affected by the evictions and demolitions - have decided not to take these actions sitting down. Community organization, led by the newly established "Jaffa Popular Committee," is well underway with many concerned citizens working hard to protect their and their neighbors' homes, and propose alternate development plans that take their needs into account.
The land and housing issues date back to 1948, when the size of the Arab community in Jaffa plummeted from 70,000 to approximately 3,600. This skeletal community was consolidated into Ajameh and Jabaliya, where a small minority was able to remain in their own homes, and others moved into homes that had been vacated. Through this move many Jaffa Arabs ended up living in homes to which they had no legal rights or official ownership.
Further complicating matters, the government temporarily housed thousands of new Jewish immigrants in empty Ajameh and Jabaliya homes during the 1950s, and even in rooms of occupied homes where they often shared kitchens and bathrooms with the Arab residents. While most residents described this period as a time of relative coexistence and cooperation, it was short-lived. As the Jews moved out to the newly-built Jaffa Gimel and Daled neighborhoods, Bat Yam and Holon, the government acquired ownership over the houses - or parts of houses - they had inhabited. According to Fadi Shbeita, Director of "Sadaka-Reut: Arab-Jewish Youth Partnership" and a leading activist in the Jaffa Popular Committee, "these historical irregularities lay the foundation for generations of debates over ownership."
Many historic Jaffa neighborhoods have been effectively 'frozen' by the authorities for years, making any building or renovation work illegal. There are many cases where only parts of homes are illegal, such as a second floor or an extra room, because family growth necessitated additions even if the authorities would not grant permits. Additionally, many families lost official possession of their homes when the government did not recognize rights passed on from generation to generation.
As the ownership of Ajameh and Jabaliya buildings swapped hands, final control most often fell to Amidar. Established in 1949, the Amidar housing company is owned by the government, Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund and controls a significant portion of lower-income housing in the country.
In the 1970s and '80s, over 3,000 buildings - including homes, schools and stores - were demolished in Jaffa. This was followed by over a decade of relative quiet in terms of the housing issue. However, several months ago Jaffa lawyers noticed a sharp increase in the number of cases pertaining to housing rights, eviction and demolition orders. Careful investigation - including a meeting with representatives from Amidar, the ILA and several Knesset members - revealed the scope of the issue, with 497 families affected by eviction and demolition orders.
The 497 injunctions were not issued all at once, but have trickled out over a period of weeks and months, and each case has an individual story. The first case to attract large-scale attention was that of the Sabah family. In 1972, Bashara Sabah added a room to his parents' home without receiving a permit. He later married, closed off the room from the main house and today lives in this same room with his wife and three children, aged eight, four and two. In March this year they received notice that they had three days to evacuate the building. Through help from the Jaffa Popular Committee and pro-bono work by lawyer Ibtisam Tannous, the Sabah family was able raise the fees to postpone, and eventually convince the court to cancel the demolition order on their home.
The Sabah case rallied community support, including dozens of Jaffa and Tel Aviv locals, both Arab and Jewish, who turned out to stand in solidarity with the family the morning the bulldozers were originally scheduled to arrive, on March 11. Many even slept at the house the night prior.
While the Jaffa Popular Committee is active in supporting individual cases, its main goal is to address the issue of housing and land rights collectively, rather than on a case-by-case basis. Shbeita points out that the mass of cases is proof that these are not a few renegade individuals trying to avoid permits and legality, rather a larger issue facing the community where bureaucracy has rendered permits virtually unattainable.
A spokesperson for Amidar told the Jaffa Popular Committee that the company prefers to negotiate with individuals, insisting that if there is an issue with a specific case, they are willing to deal with it.
To increase awareness about the scope of the issue, the Popular Committee, Al-Rabita: The League for the Arabs of Jaffa, and other local organizations combined their efforts to stage a peaceful demonstration on April 27 which attracted hundreds of participants - again both Arabs and Jews - from Jaffa and beyond. Slogans and speakers called for housing rights for the poor and protection for the community of native Jaffa locals.
Taking their community organizing a step further, these organizations, along with Bimkom: Planners for Planning Rights and the Arab Center for Alternative Planning, put together a two-day conference later that week on issues related to housing and development. Demonstrating the universality of gentrification issues, keynote speaker Michael Edwards from University College London described the community struggle in the Kings Cross area of London, which successfully prevented developments that would have ousted the neighborhood's poor inhabitants. Other Israeli speakers, both Arab and Jewish, spoke more specifically about the case of Jaffa and offered development alternatives such as "improving without moving," and creating mixed-income neighborhoods which allow for gentrification without displacing the native residents.
While these events have attracted attention and support, the gentrification issue is far from settled. On May 27, police arrived at the home of the Thaka family to enforce an eviction order issued against the branch of the family living in their home's illegally-built second story. They live in a neighborhood known as Pardess Thaka, named for the days when the family owned an orchard on the land. The trees were replaced by homes years ago to meet the growing demand for housing in the city.
When met by dozens of concerned Jaffa residents sitting on the roof of the house, the police called in support from the municipality and through careful negotiation eventually agreed to postpone the demolition in order to give the family time to fight it through the courts.
The Jaffa Popular Committee insists that it is not opposed to development, but "we will not resign ourselves to accept development that forsakes the native population," says Shbeita.
Furthermore, they do not support illegal construction. "We want to work out a process of legalization that allows families to buy, or buy back, their homes at reasonable, affordable prices," Shbeita explains. "The committee also proposes setting up public housing for the illegal residents, but within Ajameh and Jabaliya so as to protect the native community and preserve the cultural character of the neighborhoods."
These proposals do not negate the possibility of luxury homes and money-making enterprises along Jaffa's coast. But by taking multiple interests into account, such compromises could allow for development in a socially-conscious manner, while protecting Jaffa's ethnic and socio-economic diversity.
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